A themed anthology can sometimes be a tricky thing, often the curate’s egg of the literary world. On one hand you might get stories that act almost as a pastiche of the source theme, either tonally or in prose style or even by utilising aspects of the work that first inspired it. On the other hand you may find instead that you get completely original tales that – on first appearance – seem almost unrelated to the theme, but which absolutely work as stand-alone tales, with subtle tonal cues which tie them to the inspirational source. I’m pleased to say that the contents of When Things Get Dark are wholly from the latter category.
Some horror themes seem rather more straightforward than others – HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe spring to mind, both genre giants whose work has inspired anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow – but the fiction of Shirley Jackson is a little more difficult to define, so editor extraordinaire Datlow has done a wonderful job of putting together eighteen new stories from some of the best writers working today.
Shirley Jackson, author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, and an array of celebrated short stories such as The Lottery, The Missing Girl, The Possibility of Evil and The Summer People, wrote quiet, subtle prose, sometimes insidiously unsettling, very often incredibly dark. As Datlow says in her very engaging introduction, “Her stories, mostly taking place in mid-twentieth-century America, are filled with hauntings, dysfunctional families and domestic pain; simmering rage, loneliness, suspicion of outsiders; sibling rivalry and women trapped psychologically and/or by the supernatural. They explore the dark undercurrent of suburban life during that time period.” Taking into account those points, the new stories in this anthology work beautifully in celebrating the enduring power of Shirley Jackson’s fiction.
When Things Get Dark is a wonderful anthology. As with any collection of short stories, personal choice means that readers will find something in the odd story that appeals more to them individually, but the quality across the board is incredibly high. My favourites happened to be the contributions from Kelly Link, Richard Kadrey, Paul Tremblay, M Rickert, Josh Malerman, Elizabeth Hand, and Laird Barron, but it feels churlish to single these out as there genuinely isn’t a poor story in the book. I fully expect to see many of these stories appearing in next year’s annual Best Ofs and making the shortlists of genre awards, such is the high quality of tales. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this anthology, and it’s one that has inspired me to embark on a reread of Shirley Jackson’s fiction, so I have no hesitation in recommending it.